Russia will stand strong and rely on itself

On May 18 Dmitri Trenin, director of think tank Carnegie Moscow, presented his views on the tensions between Russia and the West at a conference in The Hague, organised by the Clingendael Institute, Nederlands Genootschap voor Internationale Zaken and RaamopRusland.  He gave his speech before the Dutch decision was taken to hold Russia legally responsible for the downing of flight MH-17.

debat whoistoblameIllustration Nanette Hoogslag

by Dmitri Trenin

Russian-Western relations have not become history. Countries within the European Union basically have left history behind them. But in the relations between Russia and the West the end of history has not come and will not come in the foreseeable future. 25 years ago we had hopes for that. But these hopes have been dispelled and not because of lack of trying. Frankly, I blame the West as the stronger party. Of course, Russia has its own share of mistakes, but can you really compare Russia in its disarray in the 1990s under president Boris Yeltsin with the victorious West?

I came to the conclusion that there are two important factors that led to where we are today. One is psychological,  the other is more geopolitical. The psychological thing is this: Russia refused to buy the entry-ticket to join the West. The entry-ticket in my humble opinion is the acceptance of the United States’ leadership in the West. Russia did not care to buy that ticket. The United States for its part rejected Russia’s pretensions to a special status in the West. Russia wanted to be a serious co-equal. Well, the United States doesn’t see anyone in this world as a co-equal and will not, and least of all Russia.

The more geopolitical thing is that the Cold War was a war and what do you do at the end of a war, when you’ve won? You either embrace the defeated or you leave the defeated in the cold. Russia was given neither. It was not embraced, it was not really left in the cold, but a few years after communism it it became yesterday’s snow, it became less relevant. The world was moving on, nobody in the United States thought that Russia would be a major factor in the future anymore. They say Russia is stronger today than it will be tomorrow, it will be stronger tomorrow than it will be after tomorrow, so why care?

But then there’s another lesson from history. If you leave a country, a big one which can resuscitate itself, which can make a comeback, if you leave that country lying somewhere, it most likely will be an opponent, at least a challenger of the system, that has been built on the shambles of its defeat. This is what I think has been happening.

Hybrid war

So the Crimea crisis in a way was predictable. It could have happened elsewhere, but I think we were moving to something like that.  I must confess, I did use the phrase 'new cold war' very soon, back in 2014 when the news came that Russian paratroopers were taking control of Crimea. But the more I thought about it, the more it daunted me that it is a false analogy, because if you accept that what is happening now is a new cold war, you’ll be guided by that experience, by the template of the states in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. You’ll expect things to happen that won’t happen, because it’s a different world and you’ll be missing things that didn’t exist then and do exist today and have a major impact.

I personally use the term hybrid war. It doesn’t mean much, it’s something like the cold war, but different from it. The key differences are the huge inequality between the two principal antagonists, the absence of a clear divides as there are no Berlin walls, no Iron Curtains. It’s highly dynamic, the Cold War was static, it was a stand-off. This is not a stand-off, it’s a collision. It’s most ferocious in the realm of information, in cyber space, and in economic affairs, where sanctions are the buzzword. It includes a lot of areas, including military, although that is not the most important one, at least not for now.

It’s so unequal, there’s asymmetry in the strategies that the antagonists are using. You cannot beat the United States if you’re Russian. You cannot even handle the United States if you’d kick back the way the United States hits you, because you don’t have the resources. You have to look at other things, you have to look at the vulnerabilities elsewhere.

Unlike during the Cold War there is no basic respect for the other side. When I look ahead I do not see any prospect for an improved US-Russian relationship on the horizon. My horizon is maybe ten years. The trajectory has been and will be a toward heightened tensions.

Then there is the Trump-factor. I don’t thing relations will improve as long as Trump is the president of the United States, because any move toward Russia will be suspected to be a payback for the alleged recruitment by Mr. Putin's former colleagues. When Mr. Trump is eventually succeeded by a Democratic president, I thing this Democratic president will try to revenge himself as well on Russia for the reported Russian meddling in the US-elections. On both sides there are very serious groups who are benefiting from this new confrontation.

The Syrian missile crisis

The only good thing that I can report to you, but it is essential, is that in the last month we may have started laying down rules that would prevent a direct military clash between the US and Russian forces. What I call the Syrian missile crisis of April showed two things: that deterrence works, the warning by the chief of the Russian general staff general Gerasimov  toward the US, that missiles targeted at Russian assets will be intercepted and that if any Russians will suffer Russia will launch its own missiles at the sites or platforms from which the US missiles are launched.

Despite all the bombast by president Trump, there is very careful, meticulous planning to avoid any casualties on either Russian or Syrian side. The deconfliction mechanisms worked pretty well. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 the only channel of communication was between the KGB-station chief in Washington DC with the brother of the American president. Today we have military chiefs in the Middle East, we have the chiefs of the general staff, the two defense ministers, the presidents talking to each other. And very interesting: there was an unprecedented visit earlier this year by the three Russian intelligence chiefs, of the FSB,  the SDR and GRU, to Washington DC.

Managing allies and enemies

A couple of things about the Middle East. Right now Russia is engaged in what I call war after victory. Victory in Syria was proclaimed famously by president Putin in December 2017, but the plan that Mr. Putin had for post-victory was undercut by the Syrian opposition, by the regional and Western powers, who believed that the Sochi process [Putin organised a peace conference on January 31 in the sea resort of Sochi - ed.] would overshadow the Geneva process, that Russia would take all.

aleppo russ min defenseRussian troops after the defeat of Aleppo, January 2016 (picture Russian Ministry of Defense)

Russia was denied the fruits of its military victory, so Russia switched to plan B. Plan B was to do another Aleppo to the opposition. You don’t want peace? OK, so you’ll have war. The Ghouta enclave was cleared out, the Syrian government was supported by the Russians. And now Putin is urging Mr. Assad in remarks that were made public (so they were not only meant for president Assad), to go back to plan A. You soften up your enemies, you manage your enemies, but you also have to manage your allies, especially with allies like Bashar al Assad. That’s not easier, actually more difficult then clearing out the Ghouta enclave or eastern Aleppo.

Russia has basically learned how to handle the treacherous divides in the Middle East. It’s very interesting how Russia managed to deal with the Iran-Israel situation. Just before Israel started to attack Iranian targets all across Syria, on May 9, prime minister Netanyahu came to Moscow and joined Mr. Putin on the most sacred day in the Russian calendar, Victory Day. Millions of people in Russia take part in a march holding the portraits of their forefathers, relatives who have fallen in the Second World War. Marching alongside Putin was prime minister Netanyahu holding up the picture of a Jewish soldier fighting in the Soviet army, who was a hero of the Soviet Union. But not for that Netanyahu came to Moscow.

I think he got a nod from president Putin to do what he actually did a few hours after the march passed. Essentially Russia gave Israel the message, as it did before, ‘guys, restrain yourselves’. Russia is practicing a new kind of foreign policy in the Middle East, I think. It doesn’t have hundred percent allies, it doesn’t have hundred percent adversaries, except for Al Qaida and ISIS. Everyone else can be an ally or an adversary or in the chance of war both at the same time. Managing allies, managing adversaries is essentially the same thing. You are there for your own interest and you try to steer your partners or counterparts toward the goals that you want.

I think Russia did not mind Israel giving Iran a slap on the wrist. Iran is a problem for Russia trying to reach a settlement in Syria. The idea is to square the circle, when Iran does have some kind of presence in Syria, but doesn’t pose a direct threat to Israel.

Relations with Europe: bleak prospects  

Russia’s conflict is not with the West, it’s with the USA.  Various European countries have their own reasons for being concerned about Russia’s actions, but by and large Europe is being caught in a crossfire between the United States and Russia. The good news about the Russian - European relations is that the fears that a lot of people spread even recently have been dispelled. The fears that Russia will try to conquer the territory of the former Soviet Union, that Ukraine is the first step, that the Baltic States and Poland will follow.

The bad news is: I don’t see what the platform for renewed Russian - European relationship can be. Right up to Ukraine the idea was that Russia would progressively become more like Europe, would become part of, lets’say, Europe plus, but this didn’t happen and I don’t think we will revisit this. In the shorter and medium term the outlook to me seems bleak. The prospects for settlement in the Donbass seem very uncertain, it’s more likely that the status quo will prevail indefinitely. Crimea is going to be a thorn in the back of Russian-Ukrainian relations maybe forever, until Ukraine recognizes Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, which cannot be expected for a very long time.


I don’t see any easing of sanctions. The Skripal case has basically reconsolidated Europe behind a very hardline position on that. I’m personally not convinced by the whole story. I don’t have a version of myself, but I’m totally unconvinced. I know what the result has been. The result is a reconsolidation of Europe behind the hardline position taken by the US and the UK. And with new US sanctions coming, those who deal with Russia might have to deal with the US. There are very few people in the business community who ignore these dangers. I don’t believe the EU will take on the United States either for Russia or for Iran.

kiseljov over skripalRussian tv anchor Dmitry Kiselyov comments on Skripal case

I think dialogue is very important, but I don’t think we should expect too much from dialogue. What we can and should expect is understanding, not in the sense of Russlandversteher, but in seeing where each party is coming from. Getting a better knowledge of each other.

Russia in a swivel chair

Looking ahead I see Europe extending all the way to the Russian border, not necessarily as member states of the EU. I have in mind Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and even Armenia who see themselves essentially as European countries. The last five years Russia’s geopolitical axis has shifted. That is a big thing. It’s not just revising the legacy of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, it’s revising the legacy of Peter the Great. Russia is in the business of rebalancing itself. Its heart and mind is no longer with Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. It’s no longer the East of the West. Whether it’s going to be the West of the East, meaning China, I don’t really know, it would depend on how Russia plays the China relationship.

But in my mind a country that can say no to the tutelage of the United States, can say no to anyone, and that includes China. I don’t see Russia being a junior partner to China. More likely Russia is going to be a large, essentially unintegrated country lying between Europe and China. This produces a very different outlook for Russia post-Putin. Russia will no longer be facing Europe for good and bad, its back turned to Asia.

Russia will sit in the middle of the continent of Eurasia, it will include your part of the world, China, the Middle East. I imagine Russia sitting in a swivel chair, turning to partners, counterparts, adversaries, wherever they might emerge. After all it’s a country that has land borders with Norway and North-Korea! And Europe will be seen as one of several important neighbourhoods alongside China and East Asia, Central- and South Asia and the Arctic. In this new world Russia hopefully will be able to build new neighbourly relationships.  Neighbours who live side by side, have a lot to offer, have a lot to respect and have to acknowledge a lot of differences.